The Dog Doesn’t Die

Book reviews & random thoughts

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The House at Riverton, by Kate Morton

I am tagging this as historical fiction because Kate Morton does a fairly good job of evoking the years surrounding WWI. However, this is primarily a story about loyalty, secrets, miscommunications, love — and the frustrating lack of career options available to women until recent decades.

As a teenager, Grace Bradley is sent to work as a servant at Riverton House, one of those British mansions that seem to inhabit most novels set in England. Over time, she and one of the family’s daughters develop a bond, so that when Hannah marries, Grace goes with her. Grace is one of three people privy to what really happened when a young poet supposedly killed himself — and the way this is constantly being referred to, you know that it didn’t happen that way. The book has a frame, in which the elderly Grace is taken back to tell the tale of the death, which makes Grace more knowledgeable than she would be had the entire book been told in real time.

In fact, the narration is a problem for me. I don’t have a problem with the frame, and I don’t have a problem with Grace as a character or narrator. My issue is that Grace learns much of what she narrates by eavesdropping, hanging around, overhearing and, eventually, flat out admitting she couldn’t know what she’s about to tell and explaining how it came to be told to her. It’s as if Morton couldn’t decide between having a first-person or third-person narrator. I do think she made an understandable choice by going with Grace, but I sort of got fed up with the “lingering in the library” excuses. Grace is a participant in the book’s events, but she is not the driver. In fact, I believe Hannah would have been preferable as the narrator.

I also believe that much of the book, especially up front, could have been thinned out. It’s almost 500 pages, and it really shouldn’t have gone over 400. It seems as if Morton wanted to offer a picture of a large mansion and its inhabitants, maybe one of those sprawling family novels, but narrowed her focus too much and ended up with some flab in the story. Again, narration by Hannah might have allowed Morton to do everything she wanted with the plot while eliminating some of the rambling excuses Grace had to give to explain how she learned certain things.

But the ending … wow! And I’m not talking about the poet’s death. The real ending (which still could have worked with Hannah as narrator) packs a whallop, as they say.

I will recommend this to people who like this kind of book to begin with and don’t mind the perpetually lurking lady’s maid contrivance. It’s a good book, it’s just got some flaws.

As for animals, there are a couple of brief mentions of hunting casualties, plus a couple of references to horses and lap dogs, really nothing upsetting. So this book is SAFE for animal lovers.

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October 8, 2009 - Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, historical fiction |

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